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USHERS THE FRONT OF HOUSE MUSICAL – Charing Cross Theatre, London.

The entertainment industry finds itself endlessly fascinating. From 42nd Street and A Chorus Line to The Player and Singin’ in the Rain, moviemakers and theatrical impresarios alike can’t resist looking inward. When the story is engaging and/or the satire biting, it’s a good strategy, but woollier fare looks like pure self-absorption. Fortunately, new fringe Musical Ushers, now in the Charing Cross main space, generally lands on the amiable, tongue-in-cheek end of the spectrum.

Part of its appeal comes from focussing not on the backstage life of glamorous leading ladies or powerful producers, but on the beleaguered employees flogging programmes and mopping up spilt drinks, just a few feet from the bright lights of stardom. It’s a strong premise, and adding to the relatable theme of thwarted ambition, there are two romance plots helping make the show accessible to audience members who aren’t regular readers of The Stage.

Nevertheless, Ushers is unashamedly brimming with in-jokes, from sly pastiche of blockbuster shows to rather less subtle putdowns (‘Sir Andrew Lloyd Macintosser’ and his overwrought Paint Never Dries) and topical references, such as the X Factor musical closure and indifference of Tory arts ministers. The show-within-a-show is Oops! I Did It Again: The Britney Spears Musical, with book by Jennifer Saunders – a now slightly dated dig at Viva Forever, but still horrifyingly plausible.

Book writer James Rottger and songwriters Yiannis Koutsakos and James Oban offer sharp observational comedy about the experience of theatregoing: price-gouging venues pushing costly ice creams and merchandise, latecomers inevitably having seats in the middle of a row, being forced to pay a ‘restoration fee’ when booking tickets. There’s also a witty breakdown of problematic audience members, with pot shots at haughty American tourists, demanding Sloane Rangers, Z-list celebs and (ahem) vapid critics.

Ushers is strongest as fast-moving, cabaret-style satire, painting characters in broad brushstrokes and jumping from one Fosse-esque number to the next in Max Reynolds’ lively production. When it delves into heartfelt storytelling, the results are mixed: there are poignant moments, but an inherent tension between the cartoon campery and human drama with real consequences.

That’s exemplified in Jacob Chapman’s scene-stealing pantomime villain. A failed opera singer-turned-tyrannical middle manager, he’s hysterical in corporate videos for Theatre Nation (“Making theatre better!”) and deliciously malevolent espousing his philosophy of “Spend per head”, pairing a commanding baritone with unsettling snake hips, but problematic when called upon to deliver meaningful plot points.

The turbulent relationship between a pair of struggling actors also wavers. Quietly compelling Daniel Buckley, as the gentle Scot leaving his boyfriend for a job in Austria, brings real emotional heft, but Liam Ross-Mills is outmatched both dramatically and vocally. The material doesn’t help: any song that isn’t overt satire tends towards the saccharine style so lovingly mocked, with generic sentiment and juvenile rhymes.

The love plot played for laughs, involving Carly Thoms’ perky new arrival and Ross McNeill’s wannabe thespian, cursed with good looks and dull parts, is more successful, their ‘love at first sight’ heralded by a jokey Disney music cue. But both are blown off the stage by skilled comedienne Ceris Hine as firecracker Rosie, the star-stalking self-proclaimed “Twitter ninja” who literally stops the show with her agonisingly slow-motion splits.

Playing at a crisp 90 minutes, Ushers is a joyful romp that occasionally punches above its weight, but is hampered by predictable plotting. With further development, it has the potential to trouble the West End juggernauts it so merrily lampoons.

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Reviewed 15/05/14/

By Marianka Swain

13th May – 7th June 2014
Charing Cross Theatre, London, WC2.

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